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The Body of Christ and severed fingers

fingers-and-keyboard

In the New Testament, the Church is referred to as the Body of Christ, and He is the head of the whole works. In much the same way as the body functions, some parts are seen, some are hidden, and some are certainly more critical than others, but what the world too often sees is a headless body, one lacking all the vital signs of the Spirit, or one riddled with sickness or maimed in the worst kind of way. On the local level, expressions of this body may be terribly dysfunctional, with too many members doing too much, too little, or nothing at all. Worse yet, some have altogether abandoned their proper places, and the individual parts that leave risk winding up spiritually dead. If I were to cut off my finger, especially the little one on my right hand, I could go on doing much that I had done before, but typing like I am doing now would be more awkward and time-consuming. In a similar way, those people who have refused to be part of the church hinder its vitality. My finger, though, without my body nourishing it, will be worse off than the rest of me, starting to die from the moment it was severed from my hand. Too many Christians who opt for a solo spiritual life are dying while they seem to live.

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Rust and sweat: Making money and the slavery of things

My father always told me that work wasn’t about having fun or making money; it was about being of service to people. That’s a very godly perspective to have, and I try to keep that attitude, but my dad actually made good money doing what he did, and I, well, I have always made enough, but never much more.

Possibly because of my horribly misspent youth, or maybe there were other mysteries at play, it took me quite a while to find a viable career path, as they say in books about such things. Through experiences, the suggestions of others, and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I finally concluded that I should be a teacher.

In order to do that, I reluctantly entered graduate school. By God’s grace and through the unfailing support of my wife and parents, I obtained the education needed to become a certified teacher.

An instructor’s pay isn’t great, but it’s not bad either. At this point in my career, I make a fairly respectable income, though not as much as some who are my age with my level of education.

Unfortunately, I was almost a decade older than the typical graduate when I became a first-year teacher, near the bottom of the pay scale with a pregnant wife and facing responsibilities beyond those of most beginning educators.

My wife was content to live in a very used trailer that first year, and she did an amazing job stretching my salary to meet our needs. To quote Bob Dylan, Linda’s “a God-fearing woman I can easily afford.”

During my second year of teaching, we managed to buy a small but brand new house in a development. About 80 residences on one-acre lots were built in the midst of cornfields and woods, and living there has been something like being in the country without the isolation, or maybe it has been more like living in the suburbs without as much convenience.

Up and down our street, families moved in, and they obviously spent money. Neighbors showed us their ongoing projects: finished basements, upgraded flooring, sunrooms, professional landscaping, and other improvements.

My wife and I did what we could afford and didn’t really worry about it much because we had our priorities in mind: I was teaching, and my wife was staying at home to raise our daughter. We also planned to have more children.

After supper, Linda and I would chat while pushing our daughter in a stroller, passing our neighbors and waving, sometimes stopping to talk. When we first met one couple, they had a little one in a stroller, just like we did, so conversation came easily. Eventually, the woman asked my wife what she did, and with some veiled embarrassment, Linda revealed that she stayed with our daughter and wasn’t working outside of the home.

The woman sighed, one of those genuine, protracted, groans of remorse. “I wish I could do that,” she said. “But we just can’t afford it.”

I felt sad for her, but by then we were in front of their home, which was the same model as mine, only they had a completely finished basement. Mine was nothing more than bare cinderblock walls and a cement floor, waiting for the time when we really needed to finish the space.

Two new cars were parked in their freshly paved driveway. We did have a fairly decent little Ford Escort wagon parked on our gravel, but I was driving a rusty Dodge Colt to work every day.

I felt sad for that woman because she desired the freedom to do what she really wanted to do, but she apparently hadn’t discovered that our belongings have a way of enslaving us and cutting back our options. There was no way I could have become a teacher, and my wife couldn’t have stayed home with our kids if we had been paying off cars and a hefty mortgage.

Everything we own requires labor to acquire and even more to maintain, and that takes up our precious time. We can always make more money, but we can never make more time. Consequently, I’m not a big fan of things.

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Dumpster diving and entertainment

 

In my job as a teacher, I have fairly literate colleagues, and our discussions often are about literature, music, and film. For a good while I was watching a lot of artistic, critically acclaimed movies based on recommendations of these people and my own reading in magazines like Rolling Stone, Sound & Vision, and other periodicals. Some of these films were a bit raunchy, but I figured it was no big deal because I was a mature, married, churchgoing adult and could handle whatever was on the screen and in the dialogue.

Then I saw a well-made film that won Oscars and told the story of a prostitute and an alcoholic who found each other and fell in love, or lust, or had something like a relationship. Images from that particular movie burned into my brain, and my mind was utterly defiled. I felt alternately horny, sullied, depressed, and, finally, acutely convicted by the Holy Spirit.

After this incident, it occurred to me that I was a lot like a former street person who used to live in a house with me and some other Christian guys. One day I was driving through the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, and this formerly homeless man was riding along. He was pointing out one restaurant after another and telling me about specific delicious dishes that each prepared: filet mignon, lobster tail, seafood Newburg, and some exotic cuisine I had never even tasted myself.

“How do you know so much about all these places?” I asked him. “It’s not like you were a food critic before you moved in with us.”

“Dumpster diving,” he said and went on to explain how he used to climb inside the trash bins behind restaurants and look for food. He explained the subtle nuances of picking through what other people had left on their plates or what had been tossed out during the food preparations. Cream sauces and shellfish were to be avoided, especially on hot days, but he assured me that a person who didn’t mind crawling through garbage could find good things to eat.

It’s a lot like that with books, music, films, television, and whatever else we might consider to be art or entertainment. There may be a lot of good stuff out there, but do we really want to run the risk of getting ourselves sick on all the trash that goes along with it?

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Theology and its limitations: Part two

Getting too analytical and taking everything apart for examination can cause us to lose perspective. I’ve had wonderful friendships with Reformed Presbyterians as well as Free Will Baptists. Having hung out with both camps, I know that in reality they agree on much more than they disagree about, and I have learned much from their own peculiar doctrines, even if they do have different ideas about what election, predestination, and perseverance mean.

On one hand, Reformed thinking taken to its extremes casts God as some sort of dictator who picks and chooses who goes to hell, and he pretty much micromanages all the goings on in this crazy world, both good and bad. On the other hand, when we take Arminianism (that’s the fancy word for the free-will side of the issue) and really run with it, we can make God seem impotent, hamstrung by man’s feebleness, and our own salvation can be a rather tentative arrangement.

Now, the theologians out there will argue that I’m oversimplifying their concepts, which I deliberately am just to make a point, or that I am completely misunderstanding them, or that I’m simply an idiot. Perhaps I am an idiot, but I am God’s idiot, and I have delved into various theologies pretty extensively. On points where they are polarized against one another, opposing camps have their Bible verses lined up, and they have their explanations for what they believe.

I choose to cling to what is precious and plain and simply let God keep some of the details to Himself. The Apostle Paul wrote down many of the very ideas all these divergent theologians use for their doctrines, but even he knew that he didn’t have everything sized up completely by exclaiming in Romans 11:33, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable are His ways!”

While I may sound like a mush-headed mystic, I want you to know that I’m not at all against theology. We all need some of it, to be sure. Certain truths must be taught, guarded closely, and defended passionately, but beyond these nearly universal basics of the faith held by most Christians, their apparently divergent theologies are mere lenses through which we may view reality.

We can certainly glean insights from many different theological constructs, but like any lens by which we view truth, each has its limits. I can use a microscope to see strange organisms swimming in my spit on a glass slide, or I can use binoculars to spot a deer I wouldn’t otherwise notice in a grove of trees, or I can use a telescope to view Saturn’s rings, but these tools can’t be used interchangeably, and they don’t help me one bit if I’m trying to tell my wife how her makeup looks before we go out on a date. Sometimes it’s simply best to use what God has given directly–His written Word and His Holy Spirit–and leave everything else alone.

Granted, the Bible can be hard to understand, and the Holy Spirit, or rather our perception of His work, is rather subjective, and that is where the theology guys start arguing their worth. Still, I can’t escape the fact that I’ve known and loved people with rather diverse theologies who all loved and served God well, nor can I escape the conviction that no single theological approach can answer all our questions. Much, we simply must leave to God.

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Smiley-faced Christianity?

I have come to a place where I don’t buy into a lot of those smiley-faced notions of the Christian life. Sure, I’ve received many God-given material blessings and enjoyed many wonderful relationships and pleasant activities, but there is a joy of the Spirit that defies all logic. In some of my bleakest times, I’ve been surprised by this joy that rises within me like the living waters Jesus promised (John 7:38), and I’ve had an otherworldly peace within which I could sense that, if nothing else, God was with me, and He was all I really needed, regardless of my circumstances.

On the other hand, my reading of the Scriptures has shown me that those who are serious about God aren’t necessarily happy.

Jesus Himself was known as a “man of sorrows,” and it’s no coincidence that the most concise verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He was despised, rejected, and endured a brutal death before being raised up and seated with His Father in heaven. All of his disciples were persecuted and physically abused, and all but one was killed for his faith. All that sounds like a fair amount of misery to me.

Modern psychologists would probably prescribe medications for many of the prophets. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, ate bugs, wore rough clothing, refused to drink wine, and called some religious leaders “a brood of vipers”(Matthew 3:7).

In the Old Testament, the prophets were even stranger. Ezekiel used a brick for a scale model of Jerusalem and laid siege to it with little ramps and battering rams (4:1-2). A grown man playing army in the dirt is mighty strange, indeed, but later he lay on his side for more than a year and cooked over dung because God directed him to do so. Hosea married a whore because God told him to do it, and then he took her back after she had done him wrong.

Sometimes God leads us to dark and strange places. Are we willing to follow, or have we made an idol of our own personal happiness?

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Expectations and delusions: Faith, sin, and the pursuit of happiness

While attending my twenty-five year high school reunion, I ran into one of the Christians who had been in a music theory class with me during our senior year. He was drinking a five-dollar beer, and I was sipping free black coffee like some kind of refugee from Alcoholics Anonymous. He said he was glad to see me and wondered if I was still writing because he always thought the music reviews I did for the school paper were good enough to have been in Rolling Stone.

I brought him up to date on my literary pursuits and told him I was wondering if he was still a Christian like he was in school. He told me he really wasn’t “into that” anymore, but was still spiritual, whatever that was supposed to mean. Of course, I shared some details about my own spiritual experiences since graduation.

He listened politely and then asked, “So, are you happy?”

I thought about his question for a moment and replied, “Is that even relevant?”

He seemed surprised by my answer. Perhaps he thought our personal happiness was the supreme test of the Gospel’s value. If we use that as a gauge, we’re all going to be disillusioned because the pursuit of happiness is very often a quest for novelty. Eventually the shine of newness wears off, and then we’re stuck with the everyday life we had before. Or, even worse, real tragedy comes our way. We find ourselves out of work, lose a loved one, or become gravely ill.

There’s a lot of unhappiness in this life, but in the midst of it all, we can seek God and commune with Him in our hearts. He is always unchanging, but He never becomes a mere routine. He Himself helps us get through this life and makes us well prepared for the next one. We are able to live good and decent lives, but we will be incomplete until we finally see Him in full instead of in part, and all our distractions and tribulations are put away once and for all.

Very often, we have to refuse opportunities that could make us happy or rich or that otherwise seem good in order to stake our claim on that which is unseen and eternal. Doing all this requires a lot of faith. The Bible states, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:27). Unfortunately, I’ve had my own hearing dulled by the clamor of this present age, and I really like pleasure, money, success, and happiness.

While God is not against any of these things, He doesn’t value them nearly as much as we do. The Apostle Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), so why do we expect an easy ride?

Even Jesus Himself told us we would have many trials, but to cheer up, because He overcame the world (John 16:32). We also are called to overcome this world and not let it put us down, but I must admit, it’s hard to do. After all, I’m blood and skin and bones like everyone else, and I don’t like to suffer. In fact, I try to avoid hardships as much as possible, but they find me just the same.

Adapted from Keeping It Between the Ditches

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A long time being born: Part two

Before coming to Christ, there were moments when I’d get wind of that greater something, a passing awareness about God when I’d see a sunset behind long rows in a field, or sit in the candlelit darkness of a Christmas Eve service, or stand beneath a star-strewn sky far from city lights. All those times were but fleeting instances that left me wanting more of what I now know to be God.

Back in the trenches of my routines, I found less than godly ways of dealing with what writer Walker Percy called “the malaise of everydayness.” Sex, drugs, and rock and roll gave me that way out, especially the drugs, which for me were mostly marijuana and alcohol, and the parts of my soul that longed for God became muted, like a radio turned down low. It’s amazing to consider that in the very air around us radio waves, phone transmissions, satellite TV signals, and who knows what else are flying around unnoticed.

God is also mostly ignored, though the Bible declares, “He is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28). With God so close, it’s easy to assume we know Him, and in a way we all at least know about Him. Some of our ideas are correct, and some are completely bogus. Most of the time we make up our own ideas about our Creator rather than hearing what He has to say for Himself. In other words, we turn off our spiritual radios and sing our own hideously off-key songs.

Like most people, I was a legalist at heart and figured God was keeping score, but graded on a curve like the more benevolent teachers I encountered in school. After all, I assumed I had never really hurt anyone and was better than all those murderers and thieves, so most of the time I felt quite righteous.

My comfort level was challenged when I encountered Christians at my job and the community college I started attending. They were an odd group, generally what I would have considered to be nerds, except they were unique nerds. Confident they were heaven-bound, those “Jesus Freaks” talked about God directing their lives as if they actually heard from Him on a regular basis.

I had started reading the Bible on my own, so God was working on me through other avenues besides experiences with peculiar people.  In addition to my study of Scripture, I read religious books and tracts, which seemed to be everywhere on that college campus: on tables in the cafeteria, on urinals in the restroom, even down in the tray of the cigarette vending machines where my Marlboros were dispensed. I ate and read those pamphlets. I peed and read them. I smoked and read them.

They usually ended with the “plan of salvation” and a “sinner’s prayer.” The plan was basically admitting I was a sinner and acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God and risen Lord. I was pretty sure I’d always believed Jesus was the Son of God, but I didn’t comprehend what that really meant. Assuming we were all sons of God, I never realized He alone is uniquely divine, and His claims of Lordship required me to acknowledge Him as absolute ruler of my life.

Blissfully unaware of the deep implications of the “plan,” I prayed the accompanying “sinner’s prayer” numerous times, just to keep my bases covered.

Eventually, I fell in with some non-denominational Christians who used drums and guitars in their church services. I even started playing in a Christian rock band and was having a good time of it, going around to churches, coffeehouses, and outdoor revival meetings. Sometimes we drove out of state and spent nights away from home. Once, we even flew in a big airliner to a city hundreds of miles away and stayed in a hotel, just like rock stars, except we didn’t throw our television out the window or entertain groupies in our room.

Even though life was good, I began to feel like something was missing, so I asked one of my pastors for prayer, but he wanted to discuss my spiritual life first.

Maybe that was just the way he did things, or perhaps God tipped him off that something was amiss. I did have long hair, and much later he told me that when we had first met, he thought I was one of the meanest-looking guys he’d ever seen, so perhaps that’s what motivated his inquisition.  After a few minutes prodding me for various details, he said, “You need to get saved.”

Immediately, I began to defend myself because I was in a Christian band, had been baptized, quit smoking pot, and was living a more decent life than I had previously. Somewhere in the midst of my words, though, it seemed as if a door opened deep in my soul, beneath all the mental assents and verbal defenses I was giving.

On a much deeper and more genuine level, I knew I was lost. In Acts 2:37 Peter had preached, and the Scriptures convey that those who listened were “pierced to the heart,” and asked, ‘What shall we do?’” That’s pretty much what happened to me, and I actually felt almost impaled, like I couldn’t move until things were set right between God and me.

Jesus said that many who had called Him Lord would come before Him on the Day of Judgment and declare they had done many great deeds in His name, but Jesus will say He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). This section of the Bible sobers many Christians because they think a person can do many good works and still not measure up, but the truly telling fact about those condemned people is not that they did great works.

Jesus never addresses their claims directly, and we don’t know for sure if they performed those wonderful deeds or not. What we know for certain is that they were using their works as their justification. No true Christian would do this, but that’s I attempted when talking with my pastor that night.

Rather than declaring Jesus as my Savior, I was actually trusting in my religious acts. Instead of seeing His sacrifice on the cross as my redemption, I was looking to my paltry acts of self-improvement. Never before had I truly seen myself as a sinner in need of salvation.

For the first time in my life, I cried out to God as a man in desperate need. Sure, I’d confessed some wrong actions before, but I had never acknowledged that I myself was horribly wrong and separated from Him because of my sin.

On that night, I was finally drawn from my dark womb of self-centered religion and birthed into the light of a relationship with Christ Himself. Prior to that time, I had known about God, but that night I came to know Him. A neglected region within my soul was vacant, but then the Spirit of the risen Christ took up residence there.

Like a newborn baby, I cried, but all my tears were not ones of joy. I left that night with a peculiar peace within me, one that when I became still enough was not a mere feeling, but the very presence of Christ Himself. In my mind, there were doubts and questions, but there was a bottom line of peace in my heart, and within that peace God spoke to me about making some changes.

In those early days after my conversion, I realized the need to cut off relationships, quit vices, and make a new life. I literally threw out bag after bag of junk I deemed unholy: books, magazines, music, old photographs, cases of tobacco, and souvenirs of my sinful ways— the assortment of items was staggering. I quit going certain places and began to frequent others. Some people I gave a cold shoulder, at least for a while, and others I sought out.

During that period of my life, a peculiar image about my situation formed in my mind. It was something like the tricks performed where a tablecloth is pulled from beneath elaborate place settings of china and silverware and even centerpieces and candelabras, but all the items remain where they are, undisturbed on a bare table.

I felt as though nearly everything that I had once known and valued had been yanked from beneath me, but I wasn’t falling over or crashing down. I was a man with an invisible means of support, and God was holding my life together.

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